Some Thoughts on The Last of Us Part II
I've been thinking a lot about video games, as I normally do, and have once again decided to verbalize these thoughts by posting on the internet. Since I can't be assed to merge all of these thoughts into a singular article or post I'm going to compartmentalize them coldly for the sake of clarity and brevity. Also...
I will spoil the entire game. The image beneath this is just a blocker between you and the spoilers; if you still want to experience this game on your own terms then turn back now.
On The Minefield
If you follow games you're aware that any discussion around this game has been absorbed into a toxic black hole involving personal attacks, review-bombing (and caring about review scores in 2020), LGBT issues, spoilers, the game's length, misinformation, and a myriad of other issues. Unfortunately the internet has devolved into a domain of binary opinions and bad-faith discussions in which it's become increasingly difficult to actually talk about the damn video game. A large number of factors exacerbate this issue including quarantine, anxiety, leaks, and social tensions, but I fear the internet and gaming spaces will continue to grow increasingly toxic until they are designed away with gamified opinions and conversation.
There's a much larger discussion to be had here about why it appears no one is in the right, but Polygon's already done an excellent job of instigating it.
On Abby's Act of Murder
I wouldn't have felt the need to comment on this except for the fact that some people have disillusioned themselves into believing what Joel did at the end of Part I is objectionably correct, and have devolved to attacking Laura Bailey (Abby's actress) on Twitter. I don't have too much to say here, other than to point out that the game opens with a reminder of what he'd done to put that information directly in the player's mind not too long before the act occurs. The set up was very clearly leading to this punchline, and it is an apt one for someone who doomed humanity and murdered dozens in the process. Additionally the game's world is very clearly one in which no one is meant to be happy, and that has always included Ellie & Joel.
On Inclusion and Portrayal
If your problem with the game is that it features characters of varying ethnicities, faiths, sexualities, and gender orientations, then there is no help for you. Now, to disclose and provide perspective I am a cis male so I don't have any advantaged point of view regarding these topics, and will only weigh in minorly with my thoughts. I feel that criticisms I have seen against the use of dead naming, Lev being referred to by their former name Lily, are sometimes taken out of context, but also have some validity to them. Firstly these instances are very few, I only recount two, as the game largely utilized the term apostate to avoid referring to Lev by name. However as someone who can not personally equate that pain and displeasure, it's hard for me to dismiss it so easily, and so the discussion should be had. I do acknowledge the difficulty in portraying a trans character, particularly in pushing their identity beyond a plot device, but I hope we can one day get there in a way where it's commonly accepted. Additionally I have also heard some displeasure around the subject that there are no happy endings for LGBT characters in The Last of Us, to which I can only say there are no happy endings for anyone.
The primary thing I would say is that it's important to acknowledge the act of opting for inclusion, even if it is not the ideal some would hope for. The effort here appears to have been done in good faith, and by continuing to explore the subject we can continue to improve representation for diverse characters.
Also, the note found in the synagogue was a liiiiiiiittle on the nose for a game that is so heavily devoted to subtlety.
On The Heavy Devotion to Subtlety
This is the part where I will most heavily criticize the game and it's writing, primarily in directing and the order of scenes. In several instances the player is given contextual knowledge before an event, so we can have the necessary information without the need for lengthy exposition. The problem here is that as a result some of these scenes feel unnatural, such as the former Fireflies not introducing themselves and overtly explaining why they are killing Joel, or Nora not accosting Ellie after their chase through the spore-infested hospital. The lines are meant to be drawn by the player and we are responsible for doling out such criticism, but this makes the procession of events feel as if several steps are being skipped.
Throughout the game the lack of accusation thrown Ellie's way by the people she's killing is what confounds me most, as she's only questioned on it by Dena, who lacks the information to truly pry at her. Additionally there's the glaringly irrational cases in which no one attempts to discuss or reason with one another, like how Mel could've simply unzipped her jacket to reveal her pregnancy and made a case that she and Owen should've been allowed to live (You could also argue that exposing this would've been showing weakness). There are many moments in which the proceedings feel contrived and the game devolves into a post-apocalyptic melodrama. Despite that the character performances, graphical fidelity, score, and visual direction make the game excel in building those characters which are the carrying focal points for the experience.
On Video Games and Agency
The ending combat sequence of The Last of Us Part I gave me a particular reading on the events of the entire game, largely in a single line from Marlene.
You don't have to do this, Joel.
In this moment I realized that I was never truly in control of the experience I was aiding in playing out, and instead I was being placed into the shoes of someone else so I could feel what it's like. I never felt liable for what Joel did in the first game, and so I never felt liability for what Ellie did in the second. I have heard complaints that the game is accosting the player for acts of murder and torture done by her, but that's not how I've read the game. From my perspective Ellie is another pair of shoes we've been given to try, with the explicit intention that they're uncomfortable. Yes, they may be on our feet, but they're not our shoes, and we're not responsible for them. They are removed and replaced with Abby, further distancing the player from the actions of any one character, even if Ellie does feel to be the primary player character.
On Pacing and The Order of Events
This is another point at which I'd take issue with the game, albeit I understand their predicament. One playthrough of the game is intended to cover the same time period for two different people, and rapidly switching between the two would likely be disorienting. However it leads to an awkward moment in which the player first reaches what is very late chronologically at the half way point, only to go back and spend hours retracing steps with the opposite foot. In some measures I wonder how necessary all of the time spent as Abby is, but I think that her story is well-told enough to be worth it, particularly with the game's themes of sacrifice, revenge, and empathy.
That being said it does amount to a game that took me twenty-three hours to complete, which is incredibly long for a largely linear experience, and while flashing back to see Abby's perspective we also saw some of her past in flashbacks, in a style reminiscent to Inception. This concept is at it's worth when the game introduces the player to Santa Barbara, extending itself for another three hours past the farm part at which the player expected it to be over.
On The One Part of The Experience That Wasn't Linear
This is a strange aside but one that felt worth mentioning, as I greatly liked the section of the game by the Seattle freeway, in which the player needs to locate gas to power a generator and has to explore several square blocks in order to find it. I bring this up because from my recollection this is the sole non-linear section of the game, and I greatly enjoyed this style of gameplay. It was an opportunity to explore, interact, and comment on a destroyed and melancholy world at leisure, with the perspective of two people who only know the world as such. It was not focused on personal stakes or quests, merely observation. However I also acknowledge that this was the section of the game where it's narrative progressed the slowest, and I can understand why this concept only existed in one instance. My primary thought here is that I wonder if Naughty Dog will seek to design an experience with less linearity next, or if this was merely a design exercise.
On Okay, But Did you Actually Like the Game, Jackass?
In short, yes.
At length, I respect the game and its incredible scope and ambition, with a want to touch on so many different intersecting themes of human existence and braid them all into a largely-cohesive whole. Some moments and narrative design did have me questioning the game, but ultimately I've come to respect it above all else. With its ambition come flaws, but by embracing those we can see it as an experiment in ethics and morality, and a compelling tale of our own nature.